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Fort Ligonier director of collections works to connect people to region's history

| Sunday, June 21, 2015, 11:15 p.m.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Growing up with parents who are reenactors, Erica Nuckles, director of history and collections at Fort Ligonier, was born into appreciating history. She often performs demonstrations and reenacts as historical figures and even constructs and sews her own costumes.

Erica Nuckles, 32, of Laughlintown grew up in a different era than most people her age.

While some children spent their Saturday mornings watching cartoons, a 2 12-year-old Nuckles played dress-up in 18th century garb.

“My very first re-enactment was Bushy Run Battlefield, and I hadn't even been potty-trained yet,” she said with a laugh.

Nuckles is the director of history and collections at Fort Ligonier, where she shares her enthusiasm for artifacts and tales from the French and Indian War. A member of the Slippery Rock Re-enactment Association, she strives to connect people to the past.

“History is so interesting,” she said. “There are endless things to learn about it. To me, it's just like an endless journey of acquiring knowledge, sharing that knowledge and getting other people passionate about history.”

Nuckles' father, Steve Nuckles, sparked the family interest in re-enacting by attending a meeting for volunteers at Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh, said her mother, Sally Nuckles, 61, of Bridgeville. He returned with a uniform, musket and a tricorn hat, and the South Hills family began traveling nearly every weekend to re-enact at historic sites.

“When Erica was a little girl, until she was in third or fourth grade, she thought everybody re-enacted,” her mother said.

Nuckles remembers knowing a visit to Fort Ligonier was significant for re-enactors. She first traveled to the site at age 6.

“There was this high level of authenticity here,” she said.

A childhood fascination with archaeology led Nuckles to the University of Wyoming, where she earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

When she was 19, she worked as a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission intern at Bushy Run Battlefield.

The experience inspired Nuckles to pursue a museum-focused career. She earned a master's degree in museum studies from George Washington University, worked at the Carlyle House Historic Park in Alexandria, Va., and interned at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum as a costume curator.

She graduated in 2006 and started working on a doctoral degree in history at the University of Albany. She is finishing her dissertation on Charlotte Brown, matron of the British Army during the French and Indian War.

The 18th century is a major focus of the gender historian's studies.

“I love studying women in any era, really, and especially just intrepid women who really challenge the stereotypes of women in different eras,” she said.

“There are those sort of social norms of every era, but there's always many, many women who don't (subscribe to them), whether it's that they're fighting the system or trying to survive.”

Other topics Nuckles studies include the suffragist movements in England and the United States, as well as African-American history.

While living in Albany, Nuckles worked at the Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer, N.Y. Historic site manager Heidi Hill said Nuckles has an interest in “untold stories.”

“That's the way to really get people engaged with history — give them something surprising and interesting that they can really kind of look into a bit more,” Hill said. “She (Nuckles) certainly sees the fun in history.”

Last summer, Nuckles and fiancé Drue Spallholz were about to marry and planned to move to Western Pennsylvania when she learned Fort Ligonier was hiring. She landed the job two weeks before her wedding.

Nuckles often gives lectures, conducts living history demonstrations and facilitates a historical clothing sewing circle at the fort.

She started a volunteer program for adults, training them as docents and historical interpreters. Making history “tangible,” such as wearing authentic clothing, is one way Nuckles keeps visitors interested.

“Reading books is great, and there are really wonderful stories written about the past, but actually being able to come to that place and see the objects that people used and to understand how they were used and who the people were, it's those experiences that kids really connect to and, really, adults do, too,” she said.

“When you see someone wearing the clothes or if you see a shoe in the exhibit, there's an automatic connection to that and then you're literally walking where these people walked,” she said. “There's nothing cooler than that.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or nchynoweth@tribweb.com.

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